Tadeusz Kosciuszko and The Un-Soviet Heroes of Belarus
On 9 October 2017, the Belarusian Association in Switzerland brought to the attention of the media the controversy over Tadeusz Kosciuszko monument in the Swiss town of Solothurn. Belarusian diaspora created and funded the monument, dedicating it “to an outstanding son of Belarus.” This wording led to a conflict with the Polish embassy, which ignored all offers to partake in the project.
Apparently, Polish ambassador in Bern Jakub Kumoch asked Swiss authorities to remove all mentions referring to Belarus. Belarusian diaspora in Switzerland did not agree and went public with this story, sparking a discussion of Kosciuszko’s legacy, both internationally and within Belarus.
Belarus, along with Poland and Lithuania, remains the rightful heir to the symbolic legacy of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Yet, in contrast to its neighbours, it remained reluctant to appropriate its heroes, choosing to build the national narrative on the Soviet era material.
From Belarus to Switzerland
Tadeusz Kosciuszko was born in Mieračoŭščyna – a manor in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth at the time, currently located in the Brest region of today’s Belarus.
Following revolutionary ideals, Kosciuszko volunteered to join the American Revolutionary War in 1776. A talented military engineer, he commanded the construction of fortifications, including the fort at West Point. In recognition of his achievements, the Continental Congress made him American general. Yet in 1784, Kosciuszko followed the call of his heart and returned to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, where he commanded the anti-Russian uprising of 1794 against the partition of his homeland.
After the defeat of the uprising, the Commonwealth seized to exist and Kosciuszko spent two years in Russian prison. After being pardoned, he moved back to the US and later to the Swiss town of Solothurn, where he spent the last years of his life. A prominent human rights proponent and a close friend of Thomas Jefferson, who called him the “purest son of Liberty,” Kosciuszko left his fortune to free and educate American slaves.
Belarusian patriots vs. Polish diplomats
In 2016, Belarusian Association in Switzerland initiated a crowdfunding campaign to create a monument to Tadeusz Kosciuszko in Solothurn, timing the unveiling ceremony to his 200th death anniversary. At the very start of the project, the Association offered Polish embassy to participate, yet did not receive any answer.
Independently raising a sum of over € 7.000, Belarusian diaspora decided to write a dedication “to an outstanding son of Belarus from grateful compatriots” in German and in Belarusian.
According to the deputy chairman of the Belarusian Association in Switzerland Aliaksandar Sapieha, Polish ambassador Jakub Kumoch contacted the mayor of Solothurn, demanding to remove the inscription in Belarusian. Apparently, fearing international scandal, the mayor gave in after the threat that Poland’s official delegation might ignore the town’s commemorative events.
Later, the Polish Foreign Ministry explained that Kosciuszko’s contributions to the history of humanity could not be limited to being just “a son of Belarus.” However, this position did not prevent Poland from marketing Kosciuszko as “son of Poland” in the past, even though the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth by no means was a modern nation-state with a clear national identity as we understand it now.
After the media ran the story, Belarusian MFA interfered into the conflict, bringing in a more balanced position. Temporary charge d’affaires of the Belarusian embassy Pavel Matsukevich mediated a compromise with the municipality. In the final version, the wording included Kosciuszko’s name, dates of birth and death and the dedication “From the Belarusian Association in Switzerland.” Belarusian embassy also found a donor, who partly compensated the monument costs.
On 20 October, in an interview to Radio Svaboda, Polish ambassador explained his position, refuting all accusations and shifting the blame to the municipality of Solothurn. Two days later, Kumoch spoke of Kosciuszko as “a national hero belonging not only to Poland but also to the US and Lithuania, whose legacy is lately also being appreciated in Belarus.” In a conciliatory tone, his address on the occasion of Kosciuszko ‘s monument unveiling in Solothurn was in Belarusian.
Meanwhile in Kosciuszko’s homeland
Looking at the actual Kosciuszko’s commemoration in Belarus, Kumoch might have simply stated the unpleasant truth for the Belarusians. Up until now, there are only two busts (not monuments) of Kosciuszko in Belarus, one of which is on the territory of the American embassy in Minsk. A modest museum at his birthplace in Mieračoŭščyna remains off the beaten track.
The Swiss story prompted Belarusians to acknowledge these facts at last. On 11 October, Belarusian journalist Hleb Labadzenka started a crowdfunding campaign to raise funds for the first Kosciuszko’s monument in his homeland. Responses to the campaign were positive, collecting almost € 6.000 within a short span of time.
During Lukashenka’s rule, Belarus has been glorifying Soviet-era heroes, ignoring other prominent figures of its history. For instance, Kosciuszko’s contemporary, composer and a participant of 1794 uprising, Michal Kleafas Ahinski remained another forgotten hero. His palace in Zalesse, Smarhon region, where the composer spent 20 years of his life, reminded a haunted place for a long time.
In 2001, the only monument to Ahinski was installed in Maladzečna with funds collected among the city population. The restored palace opened as a museum only in 2014. Almost all funding came from the European Union’s cross-border cooperation programme Latvia-Lithuania-Belarus.
Is Belarusian political regime willing to embrace new national heroes?
Recently, one of the major Belarusian state TV channels, Belarus 1, showed a story about the Military Academy at West Point and Kosciuszko’s contributions to its history. The official media clearly stated his Belarusian roots – this did not happen often before.
As the position of the Belarusian MFA regarding the incident in Switzerland demonstrated, Belarusian regime does not mind to play around with national mythology, especially in light of recent flexible approaches to strengthen the independence. From a different point of view, Belarus could profit from the tourist potential of its non-Soviet history and revive rural regions.
Finally, Kosciuszko monument in Switzerland might have also reminded Belarusians not to leave history up for grabs. Historical legacies and heroic narratives are the foundations of every nation, and Belarus has a right to use them in the same manner as its neighbours do.
Lukashenka’s recent appointments strengthen Belarusian independence and identity
Over the last few months, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka has made a number of high-level appointments that indicate “Belarusianisation” of the government.
A number of new military chiefs never studied at Russian military schools in contrast to most of their peers. Certain candidates known to speak Belarusian on a daily basis also received positions, for example the rector for Mahilioŭ State University (Lukashenka’s alma mater), the Information Minister and the Deputy Foreign Minister.
This policy is intended to strengthen the country’s independence and national identity. It differs from Lukashenka’s traditional approach to policy insofar that it is not purely statist and adds a cultural element to Belarusian nation-building.
Siloviki: loyal technocrats in lieu of Russian-educated
On 18 July, President Lukashenka appointed Alieh Dvihalioŭ to be the Chairman of the State Military-Industrial Committee. Until then he was the commander of the Air Force and Air Defense of the Armed Forces of Belarus. Like his predecessor Siarhiej Hurulioŭ and many other high-rank Belarusian siloviki, personnel who oversee state security and power ministries, he was born in Russia. But unlike most of them, he received his full military education and pursued his career in Belarus.
According to military establishment sources for Naša Niva, a Belarusian newspaper, Alieh Dvihalioŭ casts the impression of being an “intellectual,” a “patriot,” and an “expert in military equipment.” According to the Belarusian military expert Aliaksandr Aliesin, he is a competent manager and technical expert. By his appointment, the leadership is expressing their view that the military-industrial sector needs modern managers, rather than regular military men at the top.
The 49-year old Ihar Holub, who is Dvihalioŭ’s former deputy, replaced Dvihalioŭ as commander of the Air Force and Air Defense. Holub, too, appears to be part of the new wave of officers. He was born in Ukraine and has also never studied in Russia. This serves as further evidence that Lukashenka is pursuing a policy of removing Russia-affiliated siloviki from high positions and replacing them with those loyal to Belarus’s independence. The Belarusian leader seems to have taken notice of Ukraine’s predicament, whereby many high-level officers turned out to be Russian agents after the ousting of Yanukovych.
Along with this trend, special and military services saw a number of shakeups after abuses were revealed to the president. On 13 October, Lukashenka removed all acting heads for the Operations and Analysis Centre—the government agency responsible for information security—until an audit of its practices had been completed. The nature of their offences has yet to be revealed.
At the same time, a number of military officers are under criminal investigation after outrageous acts of hazing led to the death of a soldier in a Minsk region military unit. New officer appointments may follow as more facts of army hazing emerge.
University rectors: ‘healthy nationalism’ instead of dissent
At the end of September, Lukashenka changed a number of rectors. Andrej Karoĺ, 44, became Rector of Belarusian State University, considered the top-ranked university in Belarus. Previously he was rector of Hrodna State University. Lukashenka, appointing him, mentioned that, “We need to establish order at BSU and… take it to a new level.”
The new rector is not respected within civil society. During his tenure, purges of dissenting academics continued unabated at Hrodna University. He came from a peripheral university, did not demonstrate any high achievements as a prominent scholar or manager. On the other hand, he does seem to have a knack for carrying out decisions issued from higher-up.
Another notable appointment came to Lukashenka’s own alma mater—Mahilioŭ State University. The position of University Rector was granted to Dzianis Duk, a 40-year-old historian and archaeologist and previous vice-rector of Polack State University.
People who know him personally call him a “serious researcher,” an “outstanding person and scholar.” Interestingly, Lukashenka highly praised a joint work written by Duk and Voĺha Liaŭko, The Origins of Belarusian Statehood: Polack and Viciebsk Lands in the 9th–18th Centuries. He characterised their approach to history as a “healthy nationalism.”
Last but not least, Duk speaks Belarusian in his daily life, which is quite rare among Belarusian officials. Lukashenka, who received his historical education at Mahilioŭ State University and always praises his teachers, may want to revitalise historical studies there—the most important part of this rejuvenation being a “healthy nationalism.”
Information and foreign affairs – growing Belarusianisation
The appointment of Aliaksandr Karliukievič as the new Information Minister on 28 September continued this trend of Belarusianisation within the establishment. Karliukievič worked as deputy information minister this past year, and before that he headed the Literature and Art state holding (2006-2011) and the newspaper and publishing house Zviazda (2011-2016). Although he has always been on the official side of the cultural community, he represents a definitively patriotic part of the establishment, which is clear from speeches he has made on TV. Last but not least, he always speaks Belarusian in the media.
This August, Andrej Dapkiunas was appointed Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs. Prior to that, he served as Permanent Representative of Belarus to the United Nations, and was replaced by another Deputy Foreign Minister Valiancin Rybakoŭ. Dapkiunas has remained a little known, but interesting personality in the Belarusian government. He shares kinship with the great 20th century Belarusian poet, Janka Kupala, and his parents were high-level cultural officials in Soviet Belarus.
In 2011, Lukashenka recalled the diplomat from New York. The authorities suspected him of having links with opposition presidential candidate Andrej Sannikaŭ. Allegedly, Dapkiunas’s embassy colleagues had tipped Belarusian authorities off. He had to undergo interrogation at the KGB headquarters in Minsk, but managed to prove his innocence and returned to New York.
At his first speech before parliament this October, Dapkiunas persistently spoke Belarusian, even when deputies asked him questions in Russian. This behaviour has seldom taken place in parliament—if ever at all. However, former Belarusian diplomat Igar Gubarevich told Belarus Digest that Dapkiunas’s high professionalism might also have been a strong contributor to his appointment, while his position on Belarusian language use played a more minor role.
The above mentioned appointments in military, information, education and foreign affairs ministries indicate that Lukashenka is pursuing a firm strategy of Belarusianisation of the government. The strategy is intended to strengthen the country’s independence. What differs it from his previous policies is an emphasis not on a statist, but rather on a cultural approach to nation-building. Therefore, this could become a major shift in the shaping of Belarusian statehood.